HBO MAX’S “LEGENDARY” PROVIDES THE SENSE OF QUEER INCLUSION THAT “RUPAUL’S DRAG RACE” DESPERATELY NEEDS

Screenshot of Wilma West from HBO Max’s “Legendary.”

The historic last couple months of racial equality protests and worldwide pushes for government reform have shone an uncomfortably bright light on the prejudice within the queer community, amongst other social groups. Queer culture is too often unconsciously defined as “white gay male” culture; from gay bars in major cities to homosexual representation on television. HBO Max’s Legendary, while not providing all the answers, is a definitive statement of counterculture to the box that queer culture is too frequently put in.

Thanks in large part to RuPaul’s Drag Race, modern drag culture is not only mainstream, but “in.” Everyone wants to be a drag queen, Instagram is flooded with exciting gender bending queer artists, and the show itself after twelve seasons has never been more popular. One of Drag Race’s most prominent and founding influences however, modern ballroom culture, remains inadequately explored and understood in the American zeitgeist. “Reading,” ball challenges, and countless quotes from Drag Race all come from ballroom. Until recently, the only exposure to ballroom many Americans had (if any) was the landmark 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, which chronicled the New York City ball scene of the ‘80s. More viewers were enlightened in 2018 with Ryan Murphy’s Pose, a dramatization of the same setting and time, featuring the largest transgender cast of any scripted television production.

Legendary brings that era to life in the modern day, highlighting the faces of the current ballroom scene that is still alive an kicking. The show follows eight ball houses, led by “house mothers” and/or “fathers,” as they compete elimination-style through nine balls to win a $100k grand prize. The houses walk, dance and vogue their way through traditional ball categories like “face,” “body” and various iterations of “realness,” giving special attention to the foundational elements of voguing and the history of certain categories. Each week is themed, with balls centered around the circus, outer space and the Wild West, amongst others. Houses also have access to designers and dancers who guide them along their journey and help hone each performance in practice.

The show did initially received some blowback. Controversy initially arose when a press release mistakenly reported that The Good Place star Jameela Jamil was to emcee and judge the competition. Outcry swiftly followed, with the main consensus amongst critics being that Jamil had no place spearheading a show centered around a culture she has no personal connection to or history with. While she did come out as queer following the report, many rightfully argued that the gig should go to an authority within the ball scene. Thankfully, it was quickly clarified that Jamil, along with rapper Megan Thee Stallion, stylist Law Roach, and ballroom mainstay Leiomy Maldonado, were to occupy the judging panel, while ballroom veteran Dashaun Wesley was to emcee. This was most definitely for the best, as hearing Jamil naively announce to the cringe of many during the premiere that a house had just given her her “first gag” should tell you all you need to know about her qualifications as a ballroom emcee.

 

But to get back to the positive influence of Legendary: while it does occasionally show its colors as a produced reality program (occasional interpersonal drama, controversial top and bottom placements, etc.), what makes it so special is its authenticity. The show makes very little effort to pander to a predominately cis white audience. Absolutely no one in the cast can be credibly called token, and no voiceover or audience surrogate is bending over backwards to explain any in-culture terminology used by the ballroom mainstays of the judging panel.

The loud, commanding and grand antics of guest judge Dominique Jackson, which are so opposed to the traditionally rigid behaviors of reality competition judges, are not only welcome, but encouraged. Judges are raucous, they don’t mince words, they cheer and wave fingers during performances; they are at a real, bona fide ball. Actual ballroom elders were consulted to craft the show’s structure and design its main categories (though allegedly one is still fighting for an official producer credit). While some informational segments are present to educate viewers on certain categories and historical ball elements, these moments are never drawn out, and the focus remains on the performers and their journeys through the competition.

Screenshot of Emcee Dashaun Wesley from HBO Max’s “Legendary.”

If this article’s title gives the wrong impression to any fans of a certain VH1 reality competition show, some elaboration. RuPaul’s Drag Race, particularly in its formative years of cult popularity, has done groundbreaking work for queer people of color on television. Early seasons featured predominately Black, Latinx and Asian casts excelling in the competition, shining brightly in challenges directly inspired by ’90s ball culture. Drag Race was the first time many Americans, plenty of whom within the gay community, witnessed queer people of color on their screens as anything other than the butt of the joke. In fact, the show didn’t even see its first Caucasian winner until season four in 2012, which is incidentally the year in which the show started properly inching itself towards the mainstream. And now we arrive at the issue.

RuPaul’s Drag Race, for all of its significant accomplishments, has become whiter and more exclusionary (in terms of both race and class) in direct proportion to its rising popularity. Casts, while still racially diverse, put far more emphasis on drama concerning white queens. “Villain edits” are more often than not ascribed to Black queens. Queens who are on a strict budget, of East Asian descent, or speak English as a second language (or any combination of the three), are at a far more distinct disadvantage than they were in the show’s first few seasons.

The show’s diversity problem has increased in magnitude roughly at the same rate as it has climbed in the ratings, and that simply cannot be a coincidence. Initially the show’s only major casting issue was its rumored unwillingness to cast openly transgender contestants, though quite a few contestants of earlier seasons did reveal themselves as trans either during or post-production. In more recent seasons however, the issue has magnified, as trans contestants (that we know of) have been all but been erased from casting; a notion that RuPaul himself did nothing to dissuade with anti-trans comments during his now-infamous Guardian interview.

By contrast, Legendary makes a point to highlight voices of Black, Asian, Latinx, AFAB (assigned female at birth), and above all trans voices specifically within the queer community. Much in the same way that the “wokest” of scripted shows subscribe to the uniquely Gen-Z idea of breaking the boundaries by ignoring them entirely, Legendary consciously chooses not to make the trans identity of the bulk of its cast the main topic of discussion. Trans identity is certainly highlighted as important, and a significant element of the history of ball culture; the very first episode makes a point to emphasize that modern ball culture was started by Black and Latinx trans people. However, the fact that a particular house member/contestant is trans is never the brunt of either their personality or presented storyline on the show. The focus is instead on the ball, the categories, the dancing and voguing, the walking, the fashion, of course the competition, and most importantly the sense of family within individual houses. Attention is given to internal house drama sure, but families fight, and it is important to show trans people of color in the same nuanced ways cisgendered white people are shown on reality television.

As opposed to the current state of RuPaul’s Drag Race, which feels very much for the masses, Legendary authentically feels like it is for the queer community while simultaneously not shutting out those outside it. But more than a competition rooted in trans culture, Legendary feels like a wake-up-call directly targeted at the queer community: to stop ignoring the trans lives of color within your ranks.

Title card of “Legendary.” Courtesy of HBO Max/Wikimedia Commons.
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